Monday, October 16, 2006


The 11th letter in the Hebrew alphabet is kaf (or kaph): כ

The letter gets its name due to its similarity to the shape of the palm of a hand: כף היד kaf hayad. Besides meaning "hand, palm of the hand", kaf can also mean "sole of the foot", "pan, censer", branch (of a palm tree - כפות תמרים kapot tamarim, the Torah's name for lulav), handle, scale, spoon. The word kfafa כפפה - glove, kapit -כפית - teaspoon, and kafkaf כפכף - "wooden shoe, clog", all come from kaf. According to Klein, "all of these words derive from base כפף and literally mean 'that which is bent'".

From כפף - "to bend, be bent" and the related verb כפה -"to force, compel" we get a number of words:

  • kfifa - כפיפה - wicker basket, perhaps called so because of a bent shape. When two people can't work together, it is said they can't live בכפיפה אחת - "in the same basket".
  • kfia - כפיה - compulsion. A big issue in Israeli politics is always kfia datit כפיה דתית - "religious coercion."
  • kippah כיפה - originally meaning "arch, vault, dome" and later "cap, skullcap"
However, the Arabic headdress keffiyeh gets its name from the town of Kufa, Iraq, where it was originally manufactured.

Kaf alternates with kof (qof) and gimmel - as can be seen by Stahl, Klein and others who say that כף is related to קב and גב - all having meanings related to "bend".

An interesting etymological side note: kaf means both the "palm" of the hand and the branches of "palm" trees. In English, the two meanings of "palm" are related, but they derive from an earlier root meaning "spread out, flat", whereas the Hebrew kaf means "bent".

(A less interesting, non-etymological side note. After my post on uchmanit, I have received a number of hits that seem to come from people looking for information about Blackberry devices in Hebrew. Am I going to get similar ones for people looking for information about Palm Pilot handhelds in Hebrew?)

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